Sunday, March 30

Lincolnshire 2014

Everybody needs a change of scenery from time to time and my latest family holiday escape came courtesy of a short stay in Skegness. The break might have only lasted a few days but it was great to recharge those batteries and see a little more of Lincolnshire in the process...

- Tower Amusements -
Monday 24th March: The journey across to Skegness was subject to the vagaries of the sat-nav, which might explain why ended up seeing more of Newark and Sleaford than we'd anticipated. I should also note that having the thing telling us "there is a traffic event on your route" is only so helpful when you have been marooned in the said traffic event (in this case A453 road widening near Nottingham) for the best part of half an hour already!! We still arrived at our base for mid-afternoon and soon got reacquainted with the Skegness seaside atmosphere down by the Pier and the Pleasure Beach.

- St James' Church, Louth -
Tuesday 25th March: The first full day of our break and the morning is spent in Mablethorpe, retracing our steps from 2009 by visiting the chalet park (still a complete timewarp) and sampling the lunchtime carvery in The Beck pub. Mablethorpe has retained the cheap and cheerful outlook I remember from before and seems good value, particularly for young families. Come the afternoon we head on over to Louth, a fascinating market town where I enjoyed discovering landmarks like the Playhouse cinema and St James Parish Church complete with its towering spire.

- Steep Hill -
Wednesday 26th March: Further historical delights await as we visit Lincoln itself. Things don't look that promising to begin with as the city's bus station is a dark and dreary eyesore, but things do improve with the Brayford Waterfront, an attractive marina area with boats, bars and restaurants. After lunch we climb the enchantingly-cobbled Steep Hill (previously voted the Best Street in Britain ) and admire the majesty of Lincoln Cathedral, even saying hello to Alfred Tennyson's statue on the Cathedral Green. The ascent is rewarded with an ale in the Strugglers Inn, a lovely traditional pub on Westgate where every available inch of wallspace is covered with a pumpclip. Our circuit is completed with views of Lincoln Castle before we have the much easier task of heading downhill back to the car park.

- Chapel St Leonards Bus Station -
Thursday 27th March: Our final full day in Lincolnshire and we decide to stay relatively local to Skegness, taking a short ride up the coast to Chapel St Leonards and passing scores of caravan parks en route. The village itself is only small and somewhat sedate with a triangular green, a clutch of shops and a prominent bell feature. The bus station (which is really only a single shelter) comes in handy for shots of the number 1 and 9 buses, then the afternoon is spent dodging the rain by watching T20 cricket back at base. All too soon the holiday is over and Friday will see us travelling home, but I think the combination of relaxation and exploration has done me the power of good!

Sunday, March 23

Hub Marketing 2014: The Doorstep Challenge Continues...

Friday March 21st brings with it more sweeping-up action from the Chairman and the Secretary as they take on the Willenhall Road, pause to ponder Portobello and then have a tidy around Willenhall and Bilston...

- Saying hello to Stephen -
This tale of cautionary completion begins over a lunchtime meeting with a certain Mr Beardsmore who hadn't yet had the pleasure of making the Chairman's acquaintance. The bald spot was duty inspected and lived up to the hairless hype.

- Scary Poppins! -
As Stephen says farewell members press on with a stroll down to the Willenhall Road, noting former pubs and the Wolverhampton Amateur Boxing Club by Eastfield School. Ever on the lookout for suitably silly poses, Mr D9 seizes upon a discarded pink umbrella as a means of shielding his baldness from being captured on camera.

- Baldness at Deansfield -
Sadly for D9 the tactic didn't quite work as the spot was soon on display down on Deans Road. Could some Worthingtons woe be to blame for his weakened defences? Rumour has it that the Secretary rustled up a happy hour at the Victoria to considerably undercut the Chairman's outlay in the Malt Shovel.

- Deans Road Memorial -
Whilst on Deans Road it was only appropriate that we should pause at the local war memorial and remember the sacrifices made given that 2014 will mark the centenary of the beginning of the Great War. 

- WME Whirlwind in the Merry Boys -
Our doorstep challenges of late have also been darts challenges and this outing was to be no exception. The competition is intense with neither player able to open up a decisive lead despite blazing a chalky trail from the Victoria to the Grapes. The Merry Boys sees WME Whirlwind get his highest checkout (a neat 40) while the darts are put on hold at the Cleveland Arms in favour of an astroturf inspection. In between times we try and locate the spot where Mrs Thompson's fish and chip shop once stood on the corner of Willenhall Road and Deans Road - the takeaway is still nostalgically recalled by local residents despite having been demolished several years ago.

- A 'Killer' Treble Twenty -
Having got to grips with a giant bag of pork crunch in the Grapes, our action now moves on to Portobello, passing the Community Centre and Stow Heath School on Hill Road. Some of the streetnames in the vicinity refer to wartime battles such as Tobruk, Arnhem and Alamein. Heading along Vaughan Road we find the Royal Oak where the dartboard takes pride of place alongside some televised ladies tennis, inspiring Mr D9 to eke out an advantage when he skilfully nails a treble twenty amidst claims of oche overstepping.

- Portobello Subway -
The eyesore shops on the main roundabout at Portobello are thankfully no more but there is still ugliness on offer down below in the island underpass, a graffiti-splattered subterranean zone that comes complete with a heady aroma of stale urine. The Chairman is always mesmerised by such subway specimens and sniffed up the atmosphere while I held my breath and snaffled a further bald spot shot.

- Checking out the Hub Network -
The remainder of the outing was a broomstick exercise in the environs of Willenhall and Bilston, gathering up some of the establishments that had eluded previous Hub Marketing sweeps. The Chairman hits top form with his darts in the Three Tuns, Secretary WME being stunned into submission by some dubious cladding before mounting a comeback in the Crown. Reconvening at the Dale bus stop, D9 is able to admire his hub handiwork as we catch the 25C to Bilston where there is just time to squeak in a nightcap. Cheers!

Monday, March 17

East Midlands Exploration

Do I detect an East Midlands bias among the beer festivals Nick and I have chosen to attend so far this year? The evidence is certainly mounting given that February's visit to Derby has since been followed by consecutive calls to Loughborough and Leicester...

- Queens Park & The Carillon -
Friday 7th March saw us getting to grips with Loughborough, a place I'd only previously been aware of for its university connections so it was good to get further beneath the market town skin. Loughborough Station is notable for the large adjacent Brush works while the town centre has a nice market square with a prominent town hall. We particularly enjoyed taking a stroll through Queens Park where 'Great Paul' refers not to yours truly but rather the casing used to cast the bell for St Paul's Cathedral. Add in the carillon tower with war memorial and there was plenty to catch our collective eye.

- Savouring Stilton -
Loughborough Beer Festival was held in the town's Polish Club, a compact venue situated off the poetically-named True Lovers Walk (sadly the alleyway doesn't feel very romantic when you actually walk along it). Space was at a premium so we ended up sitting on soft seats in the foyer, acting almost as unofficial bouncers. The ales accosted included Baltic Black, Umbel Magna, Bateman's Oatmeal Biscuit and a Colonial IPA although it was the Leatherbritches Island Rum Runner that tickled the fancy most of all. Special mention too for the stilton cobs, tasty delicacies that we would seek out again just a few days later.

- The Organ Grinder -
After a brief look at Loughborough Wharf and the Grand Union Canal, we rounded off the evening with a little tour of the town's pubs. The student population is well catered for but not at the expense of the discerning drinker, with places like the Swan In The Rushes making an excellent impression. The Organ Grinder is the Blue Monkey tap where we wrestled with some Guerrilla Stout, while the mere mention of Three Nuns had Nick giddy with ecclesiastical excitement. The Tap & Mallet had the final say as we headed back to the station - the less said about our darting exploits here the better, although we did at least liven things up for an otherwise bored barmaid!

- Posing with Porter! -
Saturday 15th March saw us eagerly retrieving the Leicestershire baton as the county's main city became the focus of our attention. If we thought Loughborough's venue wasn't the most enticing of prospects then Leicester seemed intent on rivalling its neighbour thanks to a temple crowned with coils of barbed wire. Luckily external appearances can be deceptive so the inside was more to our liking. My trusty notebook reveals that the beers braved this time around included Goat Sanctuary, Radical Red (the name seemed appropriate given the recent passing of Tony Benn), Pretorian Porter and Liquid Mistress. I also made sure to try an example from the Golden Duck Brewery (Wristy Fitzy) purely because one of the brewers is named Andy Lunn - could there really be another D9 on the planet? Ultimately however it was the combination of Stilton cobs and Church End's Chindit Jungle Juice (heavily flavoured with pineapple) that proved the most memorable. A beer festival is always a good place to encounter a Porter or two and in this case we got chatting to Phil, an instantly recognisable fellow member of Wolverhampton CAMRA.

- Ceremonial Flags at Leicester Cathedral -
Call it the explorer's instinct but I always enjoy having a good look around a place besides getting to know its pubs. Leicester seems to be focusing much marketing on the discovery of King Richard III's remains, hence there are regular references to the notorious monarch. I have to say I really enjoyed taking a look inside Leicester Cathedral, admiring the stained glass windows and carved stalls.

- The Pub -
Our post-festival Leicester lookabout comprised a variety of pubs, starting with the Salmon (recommended by Phil, busy with rugby fans) and taking in the King Richard III (we couldn't resist the royal name even though this was standard Everard's), the Globe (by the cathedral) and the Ale Wagon (Hoskins Brothers' brewhouse with 1930's detail). The New Walk quarter features two pubs almost back-to-back: the Kings Head is a definite Black Country Ales outpost where we accidentally find ourselves among a Leicester City supporters singalong, while The Pub does what it says on the tin. We just have time to say hello to Thomas Cook and Angus (the Parcel Yard stag) before catching our train home, and I have to say that the East Midlands has been well worth exploring!

Sunday, March 16

Chip Foundation Chronicles: Oakengates & Shifnal

Wednesday 12th March 2014 and the Chip Foundation are Shropshire bound for an excursion that might just be our last get together while all members are still in active library service...
- The Place, Oakengates -
Our desired destinations are the combined delights of Oakengates and Shifnal so we caught the 14:25 Shrewsbury stopper directly into Telford territory. Our initial stroll around Oakengates revealed that the regeneration of Market Street was nearing completion and we couldn't resist a nose around The Place, a facility that combines a cafe with a branch library and the theatre box office.

- A Princely Double -
Market Street is home to a trio of pubs invitingly arranged within a few doorsteps of each other so we set out to complete the triangle. The Crown got us started with some Joules' Old No. 6 winter ale and a game of darts - sadly for me both Stephen and Nick (christened HRH on the chalkboard especially for the occasion) proved more proficient at finding the doubles than I did.

- The Station Hotel -
I dragged my bruised pride out of the front door of the Crown and straight across the road into the Station Hotel where some Quaker House Oatmeal Stout was the order of the day (and very good it was too). Some horse racing from the Cheltenham Festival meant that Stephen was suffering from an overdose of Clare Balding but we did at least get some answers on a cryptic nursery rhymes quiz we'd brought along for added entertainment - "young woman in terror attack by arachnid" anyone?

- The Quintessential Chip Shot -
A Chip Foundation outing cannot be complete unless a local chip shop is sampled and we carted our respective takeaways up to Hartshill Park for a seat in the sunshine. The chips certainly met with Mr Beardsmore's approval whilst HRH Prince Nickolenko gamely battled with a rather large fish. He just about managed to devour it in time for a swift half in the Old Fighting Cocks, tap for the Ironbridge Brewery.

- Train at Shifnal -
The first half of our itinerary was complete but we still had Shifnal to savour, hence we caught the 18:06 train for the short ride back through Telford Central. The line arrives in Shifnal high above the town on a landmark bridge that offers excellent views, including glimpses of the local cricket club. We alight just as darkness begins to fall, the fading light making the whitewashed station underpasses seem quite eerie.

- Getting Quizzical with the Odfellows -
Three pubs in Oakengates would be matched by three in Shifnal, the first of those being the Odfellows Wine Bar just across from Barkers Newsagents. The nursery rhymes quiz makes another appearance with Nick conjuring up pat-a-cake pat-a-cake from the depths of his memory bank.

- Heavy Industry in the White Hart -
Proceedings are completed by calling into the Plough and the White Hart, both of which made a good impression. The Plough was perhaps more food-orientated but still homely as we admired the works of a local artist whose pictures were showcased on the walls. The White Hart has beams and uneven floors to give considerable character as we sampled Collaborator, a champion beer from North Wales apparently. It had been a relaxing outing in the best Chip Foundation traditions, and we hope that the saga will continue even if employment circumstances will soon be changing...

Saturday, March 1

Hub Marketing 2014: The Titford Trail

Friday 28th February sees the Hub Marketing Board tackling tricky towpaths and other obstacles with varying degrees of muddiness as members attempt a 'lollipop' (D9's terminology) circuit of Langley, Quinton and Warley. Appropriate footwear is a must...

- Glowing Green -
... although whether these particular trainers qualify as sensible canal attire is another matter entirely. Perhaps the Chairman wore them to try and distract us from the glow of his bald spot as we made our way towards Bromford Junction to join the Spon Lane Locks Branch?

- Spotted at Spon Lane Locks -
Talking of that follically-challenged scalp of his, here we see it at the other end of Spon Lane Locks. Despite the murky conditions, Mr D9 was positively drooling about the chance to do an extended stretch of Soviet swimming pool, burrowing along in the underbelly of the M5 motorway. The Welsh mountains and the Yorkshire Dales are all well and good, but this is what we call scenery.

- Oldbury Locks at Tat Bank -
Oldbury Junction has lost none of its horror value since we last had the misfortune of being here, but relief is close at hand in the form of the Titford Branch. Climbing the locks through Tat Bank to Langley is a peculiar pleasure on a grey and drizzly morning, the dank weather adding additional notes of atmosphere.

- Remains of The Bridge -
At New Inns Road Bridge we pause to see what has become of The Bridge pub, a place frequented by Roger, myself and Bruce the Bear in years gone by. The site has largely been cleared except for the clinging facade of the building's lower storey, presumably left intact as a barrier preventing people from clambering into the demolition rubble. This sorry sight precedes a stroll into Langley Village, admiring some of the old-fashioned shopfronts before we rejoin the Titford at Uncle Ben's Bridge.  

- Titford Pools -
With our Chairman intent on some continued acts of goose-bothering we pass the rear of the Navigation pub and then below Jarvis Bridge, after which the canal splits into two arms. We initially explore the stub towards Birchfield Lane before then sampling the Whiteheath section, with tracks so muddy that Mr D9 feels obliged to retrieve some high heels out of the undergrowth for extra pathway purchase.

- Well hello Dolly! -
It's strange what weird and wonderful objects you can find abandoned on the byways of Blackheath, and members are now highly trained in being able to spot a silly photo opportunity if one should come along. Even so, this discarded dolly took us by surprise down off Cakemore Road, the little lady in question providing much entertainment after we'd suffered the blow of missing out on our planned breakfast.

- Double Top -
In need of a pit stop or two, we called into The Clock down on the corner of Nimmings Road and Masters Lane. The pub has been refreshed a little of late but its still very much recognisable as the landmark I first spotted from the 123 bus some years ago. Cobs, beer and darts are a winning combination even if Mr D9 is on top form and intent on handing out a thrashing - an early 3-0 lead for the bald one then, although the Victoria on Maltmill Lane gives WME the dual consolation of a sleeve success and a double top checkout.

- The Worlds End Closet -
It's only just gone 2pm and already the local schoolkids are finished for the day as we drift through into Quinton via a bladder call in the Stag. A ride on the 99 brings back memories of the old 636 route I remember from my University days, passing Quinton Police Station before alighting by the shops on Faraday Avenue. This is the Worlds End estate where D9 finds some treasure in the form of an old toilet block on one end of the shopping parade.

- Perry Hill Hub Marketing -
Worlds End Lane should by rights take us to the very edge of civilisation, but instead it leads us partway towards Brandhall. The only things ending around here are the Secretary's hopes of a darting comeback, as Bisto shows no signs of relinquishing his hard-earned advantage. The Perry Hill Tavern in fact sees D9 landing a remarkable three-dart score of 156 - shame he only needed 119 at the time!

- Fancy Dress or Plain Distress? -
Missing out on such a monumental score clearly did some damage to the D9 brain as before we knew it he was dressing himself up in possibly his oddest costume to date - a paw-print hat and a black binbag beard, all unleashed when waiting for the 127 bus down to Warley. Apparently he wanted to roll out the barrel, but had to make do with some chap named Brian in the Pheasant instead. 

- The Rocket Pools -
Our Warley workout comprises assorted calls in the Plough at Bristnall Fields (properly cottagey), the Merrivale (we're glad to see such a landmark has re-opened), the Bell at Rood End (another example of wake-crashing) and the Cottage (for the final darting insult) before the Rocket Pools at Bradley steals in with the final nightcap. The green trainers were now suitably mud-encrusted and another magnificent bout of marketing mayhem was over - what a day!!!